During the past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting upon all of the different and often erroneous ways that our culture tries to understand and define romantic love. An immediate example at hand comes from the much-anticipated release on February 14th of the film 50 Shades of Grey, based on a best-selling book, which capitalizes on the idea that “love” is a titillating, erotic game, in which people use each other for their own pleasure. Meanwhile, countless men’s and women’s magazines supposedly offer insight into what the members of the opposite sex “really want”, suggesting in turn that love is a kind of code that must be cracked, often by following counter-intuitive impulses. Along these lines there are a plethora of “dating experts” and “relationship experts” who perpetuate the idea that one’s romantic life is so complex that only with the aid of a “system” or special form of training can one successfully find a life partner or “soul mate.” Some dating gurus, especially those writing to men, even present the search for love in quasi-military terms as a series of battles that must be fought. Thus the classical Chinese military treatise The Art of War, by Sun Tzu has been adopted into a dating manual! (The Art of War for Dating: Master Sun Tzu’s tactics to win over women—by Eric Rogell). Even such innocuous developments as the rise of online dating can help to endorse the idea that love means simply setting out a laundry list of qualities that you expect to find in a significant other, and then letting a computerized algorithm deliver you options from which to choose. The single flaw running through all of these different conceptions of romantic love prevalent in our culture is the concept that it’s all about me. To a greater or lesser degree, all of these approaches are self-centered, and more entail finding/using/molding someone else to be loved, rather than making yourself into the kind of person whom someone else would want to love.
Now I’m generalizing to some extent of course, but even when our culture moves somewhat beyond an obsessively self-centered understanding of love, there is still a tendency to define it in narrow terms—as primarily between two people. So while both individuals could perhaps engage in a self-help process designed to make themselves more lovable, rarely does our culture consider the ramifications of a concept of love that is so much greater than merely romantic, and neither begins nor ends with us as individuals. This kind of love can only be grasped in the spiritual realms. It becomes accessible when we cease to view things through our limited human perspective and try to envision ourselves, and the world around us, from God’s perspective. Scripture can help us in this process, and I’ll discuss more about that a little later. But moving on from our culture’s understanding of the pursuit of romantic love, it is also fascinating to analyze for a minute its view of unrequited love. When love goes wrong—and specifically when the object of one’s affection does not return those feelings, how are we culturally-conditioned to respond? Well no doubt, all of us have our own, unique stories of heartbreak, but so often I suspect that at the root of the pain of our wounded emotions lies the idea “I don’t deserve this.” Yet, a Scripturally-conditioned response might tell us somewhat the opposite. That is, knowing and fully embracing our fallen natures it could be that our failed and broken relationships are the natural product our inability to love perfectly. Or to express it in larger, more theological terms, and going all the way back to the Garden of Eden—our first and great failure to properly love God in our relationship with Him naturally extends and contributes to our failings in romantic relationships with our fellow men and women. But whatever pangs or pain we have felt from unrequited love, breakups, or even divorces—there is one true Master of Unrequited Love and heartbreak, a Man of Sorrows whose pain we can never fully appreciate—Jesus Christ.
Since the day of Jesus’ sacrificial death for all humanity on the Cross, think of the millions upon millions of people who have willfully rejected His free offer of grace and salvation in order to perversely pursue their own broad path to destruction. 1 Corinthians 1:18 notes this—“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.”A perfect sacrifice, bought at a very high price (as Paul reminds us of in 1 Corinthians 6:20) is nonetheless scorned, devalued, and ignored by so many! How deeply this must wound the heart of our Lord! Perhaps even more wounding and damaging to Jesus however is the extent to which millions of Christians continue to effectively reject the value of the sacrifice made on their behalves by falling into sin even after having been bought and redeemed by the blood of Christ. Hebrews 6:6 discloses in no uncertain terms the full ramifications of our sin as Christians. When believers turn away from the God who died to save them, they “crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” What is most amazing though, is even as a Man of Sorrows, and a Master of Unrequited Love, Jesus never turns bitter, even towards the very ones who scorn and reject His love. Look for example at Luke 9:51-56. In this passage, Jesus is rejected by the inhabitants of a Samaritan village, who refuse to offer Him hospitality as He journeys towards Jerusalem. James and John respond to this rejection wrathfully, and request that Jesus give them permission to call down fire and destruction on the Samaritan inhabitants for their hard-hardheartedness. While this passage in part illustrates how quick the disciples were to judge the sins of others besides themselves, it says perhaps even more about the forgiving nature of Christ. For Jesus in fact had every right to judge these people, as the one true, and perfect Judge. Yet His ministry of course, was one of reconciliation and salvation, as He reminded James and John in Luke 9:55—“The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Nonetheless while Jesus offers grace and forgiveness to those who reject Him, how often do we correspondingly grow bitter and angry as a result of our failed relationships? Again and again, we see through Scripture that Jesus’ sacrificial kind of love is simply on another plane entirely than the self-serving kind of love that the world is accustomed to, and that we, even as Christ-followers, often practice. In John 13:34-35 Christ gives His disciples a New Commandment, that they love one another. But the exacting parameters of Christ-like love are fully spelled out a few chapters later in John 15:12-13—“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” Then in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Paul outlines for us in further detail the radical nature of Biblical love—“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
To fully understand the depth of Jesus’ unrequited love for all humanity, we must remember that this love stretches back from before the beginning of time. 1 John 4:8 asserts quite plainly, that “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Then in 1 John 4:19 the primacy and preeminence of the Divine Love is clearly stated: “We love Him because He first loved us.” The immortal opening lines of John’s Gospel complete the circle. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Thus we can say that Jesus’ love for us has stretched back to before Creation. And it will stretch into eternity, as Revelation reveals. As John writes in the introduction to this book which will unfold the mysteries of those works of God yet to come—“Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come…from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead…to Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood.” (Rev. 1:4-5). The campus ministry at CU-Boulder that I serve on staff with, Christian Challenge, held a banquet a few weeks back to celebrate Valentine’s Day. And one of our very talented students shared a brief reflection on the nature of Biblical love. What he said was so perceptive that I asked him if I could borrow a phrase from his talk. This young man, Colin, described very succinctly and effectively the Scriptural understanding of what true love is. “Based on the Biblical narrative—life should be a love story that neither begins nor ends with us.” Colin’s quote hits on exactly that difference between worldly and Biblical love that I’ve been trying to establish in this post. Worldly love almost always ends up being focused on us, and so when it goes astray (as it invariably does) disappointment and bitterness naturally ensue. The problem is that worldly love has far too narrow a focus. But seeking to adopt a more Biblical perspective on love means that we insert ourselves in the infinitely larger Scriptural narrative—a story in which love began long before we came into being, in the heart of God. This love, as expressed most perfectly by Christ, will endure forever as Paul so memorably expresses in that magnificent chapter, 1 Corinthians 13—“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues; they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away…now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:8, 13).
In his outstanding survey of the major world faiths entitled The World’s Religions, scholar Huston Smith writes about the way in which Hinduism encourages its adherents to view the world from a broader perspective than that of the individual: “What if the interests of the self were expanded to the point of approximating a God’s-eye view of humanity? Seeing all things under the aspect of eternity would make one objective towards oneself, accepting failure as on a par with success in the stupendous human drama of yes and no, positive and negative, push and pull. Personal failure would be as small a cause for concern as playing the role of loser in a summer theater performance. How could one feel disappointed at one’s own defeat if one experienced the victor’s joy as also one’s own; how could being passed over for a promotion touch one if one’s competitor’s success were enjoyed vicariously? Instead of crying ‘impossible,’ we should perhaps content ourselves with noting how different this would feel from life as it is usually lived, for reports of the greatest spiritual geniuses suggest that they rose to something like this perspective. ‘Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.’—are we to suppose that Jesus was posturing when he uttered those words?” Smith’s ending citation from Matthew 25:40 shows us the extent to which growing in Christ-likeness means being able to change our perspective. To strive to love more as God does rescues us out of the self-imprisonment of selfish desire and frees us to connect ourselves to a story so much greater than that of our own comparatively trivial likes, dislikes, or romantic inclinations. But where Christianity departs from all other faiths is not only in promoting such a “God’s-eye” perspective on things, as Smith has noted. For Christianity also enables us to come face to face in a personal relationship with the Master of Unrequited Love. We can try to contemplate the sufferings that God has endured over the years in having His great love for humanity so often rejected. In doing so hopefully we gain a profound sense of corresponding empathy for those around us. Thus when our love is rejected, we can try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, or remember a time when we rejected someone else’s offer of love. The final trump card that Christianity offers however is a God who not only can sympathize or have pity on us, but who can actively and infinitely empathize with us for the simple reason that He has put on flesh, and walked a lifetime in our shoes! Jesus’ great love for each of us, and all humanity is not theoretical but viscerally real—sealed by the agonizing pain of Calvary, and given a triumphal exclamation point on that blessed Easter Sunday when He rose again from the grave. While at the moment He continues to suffer unrequited love on our behalves, the day will come when Christ’s return will bring to completion everything that He has begun. Then will be fulfilled Paul’s prophecy in 1 Corinthians 13:10—“When that which is perfect has come, that which is in part will be done away.” So the next time you suffer from the pangs of love, remember and meditate upon the one who has loved and suffered so much greater on your behalf, and whose love will one day bring everything in creation to completion.